March 25th, 2015
I just finished reading Ode To Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, a new release in the 33 1/3 series of books. Straying from the template of most other titles in the series, it isn’t devoted to an in-depth analysis of Bobbie Gentry’s debut album but is instead an investigative biography of the reclusive singer who made her last album in 1971 and completely vanished from the public eye in the early 80s.
Murtha has done a lot of digging in archives and spoken to people who worked with her, but with such a big hole at the center of the story — Gentry herself — it has a Rashomon-like quality with people offering conflicting stories and opinions about the singer which only makes her more mysterious by the end. The only thing that seems clear is Gentry was something of a feminist pioneer: writing and producing her own records, and negotiating her own business deals (very successfully), at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman artist to do so.
It’s a terrific book full of fascinating trivia (I could do without knowing Gentry was a fan of Ayn Rand though) but sadly it can’t answer the really big question: Why did the driven, ambitious, and creative woman capable of writing beautiful songs like this just…quit. As Murtha says in the book, “Only one person knows, and she isn’t talking.”
Download: Courtyard – Bobbie Gentry (mp3)
December 11th, 2014
One more from “Lost Worlds”:
“One of the great losses of the Information Age is texture. Consider the pre-computer desk: a litter of papers, large and small, handwritten, printed and typed, coarse and fine; letters in varying hands, envelopes of various sizes bearing stamps from all over the world. Here are books, annotated and bookmarked; here is a typewriter with its ribbon and its heavy steel frame. Here are photographs and drawings, coins and banknotes, documents bearing seals and counter-signatures, pristine originals and faded carbon copies, correction fluid marking the palimpest of human error, dog-ears distinguishing what has been well-thumbed from what has been largely ignored. Papers lie in piles, navigable vertically according to what has been most recently consulted; some are turned sideways-on to mark the stack. Boxes of note cards are neatly indexed; bundles of them, held with rubber bands, less neat but closer to hand; notes and memoranda are thumbtacked to the bulletin-board.
Now consider today’s equivalent. All is stored on the network and accessed via mouse-clicks on a clean glowing screen. Everything is the same: an image seen through glass. We touch nothing, mark nothing, smell nothing. In the new world of IT, it is not just the desktop that is a metaphor: everything is a metaphor, where nothing yellows with age and everything is clean and new. We have become creatures of sight alone, our whole attention focused on a hundred and fifty square inches of expensive glass.
We have lost something in the process. Not just texture. Something more. The computer makes everything retrievable but it doesn’t retrieve everything. Only the surface. Scratch that surface and — look! — more surface. The rest is lost.”
Download: Digital – Joy Division (mp3)
December 9th, 2014
Too distracted by other things to finish a proper post at the moment so I thought I’d go back to one of the original wells of inspiration for this blog: the book “Lost Worlds”, a compendium of vanished things written by Michael Bywater. Here he is on why nostalgia for our childhoods is such a powerful thing:
“Generations beyond number — certainly they were active when the Old Testament was being composed — have lamented that time when men were men and women didn’t mind; when the air was cleaner, people stood taller, children obeyed their elders, food tasted better, wine left one mellow rather than crapulous, flowers were brighter, rain softer, animals more obliging, harvests richer and a hazy mellifluous peace engulfed the living world…
Yet its location in time remains uncertain. Just as the garden always looked better last week, just as the orgy was always the day before yesterday or down the road, so the Golden Age occupies a strange, shifting region of time; the opposite of the phenomenon observed by authors, lawyers and software engineers, the Constant Time to Completion effect. The Golden Age is always, and has always been, a little before we were born; perhaps when out parents were young. After all, it’s they who spent our childhoods telling us how much better things were when they were children.
But here’s the secret. The Golden Age is always, really, us. It’s the memory of our own childhood. Not that is was necessarily wonderful; just that it was simultaneously us, and yet entirely foreign. Nobody can recapture how they thought as a child; how the world felt; how alert the senses were; how the world seemed to offer endless opportunity, unalloyed promise under the sun. The seventeenth-century mystic Thomas Traherne saw our lives beginning, as infants, in a condition of amazement, like angels; and so the Golden Age is the angelic infancy of the world. No wonder we yearn for it.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Literally. He’s a much better writer than me.
Those Spandau Ballet boys did some cracking 12″ single mixes during their own Golden Age.
Download: Glow (12″ version) – Spandau Ballet (mp3)
August 6th, 2014
Not being in the mood for anything new I re-read Jonathan Coe’s nostalgic novel The Rotters Club on holiday the other week. The book is set in Birmingham in the 1970s and one of the major events in it is the horrific bombings at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern In The Town pubs in the city which killed 21 people on one night in November 1974.
Two characters in the story are in the latter pub that fateful night and one detail Coe adds is that the last song playing on the jukebox of the Tavern In The Town right before the bomb went off was “I Get A Kick Out Of You” by Gary Shearston. I can only assume Coe made that up because I can find no reference to it anywhere else, but it’s perfectly feasible as the record was a big hit at the time, getting to No.7 in the charts the month before the bombings.
Though she already had a version of the song by Frank Sinatra my mother bought the record because she loved Shearston’s lazy, laconic take on it — complete with an acoustic guitar intro stolen from “My Sweet Lord” — which really brought out the urbane ennui of Cole Porter’s lyrics. Despite his Ferry-esque croon, Shearston (who died last year) was actually an Australian folk singer and this was a one-off novelty hit that he recorded for a lark. Part of the success of such an old-timey record was probably due to the 1970s nostalgia vogue when even Laurel & Hardy and Glenn Miller got in the charts.
This is one of the records that most reminds me of my mother so I was a little bothered by Coe placing it in the terrible context of the Birmingham pub bombings, as if he was messing with my own memories. But one of the book’s strengths is that Coe avoids the superficial, I Love The Seventies! version of the decade — nothing but flares, Glam Rock, and big sideburns — which a more obvious signifier of the era like Bowie or T. Rex would have been. Going with a forgotten one-hit wonder — and slightly cheesy one at that — can tell you more about the actual, ordinary reality of the 1970s than “Starman” does.
Download: I Get A Kick Out Of You – Gary Shearston (mp3)
PS: How nice looking was the Charisma Records label?
February 12th, 2014
Watching Get Carter also reminded me that I have this: A note playwright/actor John Osborne wrote to my Dad and put inside the copy of his autobiography he gave him (and I now have).
If you can’t read his writing this is what it says:
You said you’d read the article — here’s the book. Many thanks for all your kindness and help when I went ‘tramp’ in July 1980.
Cantos [?] Christi,
I have no idea what “when I went ‘tramp'” means but knowing about Osborne — violent temper, five marriages, heavy drinker — I imagine he was on his arse for some reason.
Though Osborne is excellent in his small part as the crime boss Cyril Kinnear in Get Carter he is, of course, better known as a playwright, particularly for Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer, and is credited with revolutionizing British theatre in the 1950s. Regular readers of this blog will know that my Dad worked in the theatre which is how he would have met him.
I studied Look Back In Anger for my English A-Level which, funnily enough, I took in 1980 around the time he was going “tramp” — if I’d known my old man knew Osborne that well then and that he owed him a favour I’d have asked to get him to help me with the exam.
Download: Look Back In Anger – David Bowie (mp3)
UPDATE: Thanks to keen handwriting analysis by Martin in the comments he make have written “twang” and not “tramp” which makes even less sense to me.
February 6th, 2014
Browsing Carnaby Street! God, before there was Tiles, that was what Sunshine used to do everyday at lunch. Sunshine, whose real name is Tony Newman, of Stamford Hill, Tottenham, and who used to be called Blossom (well, Sunshine tops Blossom anyway) Sunshine would cut out of the stationer’s store with the straight lunch mask on and then head straight for Carnaby Street and then just walk up and down Carnaby Street’s weird two blocks for an hour, past the Lord John, West One, the Tom Cat, men’s boutiques with strange enormous blow-up photographs in the windows, of young men flying through the air with some kind of Batman jockstraps on and rock music pouring out the doors, and kids just like him, Sunshine, promenading up and down, and tourists, christ, hundreds of tourists coming in there to photograph each other in front of Male West One instead of Big Ben, and busloads of schoolgirls with their green blazers on and embroidered crests on the breast pocket, all come to see the incredible Carnaby Street, which turns out to be a very small street with shops and awnings and people standing around with cameras in their hands, and Sunshines, all the Sunshines of this world trundling up and down for their whole lunch hour, not eating a goddamned thing, just immersing themselves in The Life.
Tom Wolfe, The Noonday Underground (1965)
Download: The ‘In’ Crowd – The Ramsey Lewis Trio (mp3)
July 9th, 2013
If my house was on fire the first thing I’d try to save — after my kids, obviously — would be my record collection. But then I’d have to dash back into the burning house to get my books because losing those would be almost as traumatic.
I’ve been buying books (mostly fiction) for almost as long as I’ve been buying records, starting in my early teens when a paperback cost 50p which was about the same price as a single. Both were cheap entry points into obsessions that have since consumed vast chunks of my time and wages, and I’ve spent (not wasted!) as much of my life browsing in book shops as I have record shops — I could soak up the ambience of those two places all day.
My literary preferences have evolved and changed in much the same way as my musical tastes too. I read a lot of science fiction when I was a teen into the cosmic Prog-Pop of ELO, as a moody/arty lad in my twenties I favoured “difficult” authors like William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon whose linguistic envelope-pushing and edgy subjects were the literary equivalent of post-punk. Then there was the spiky misanthropy of early Martin Amis which every young man goes through a phase of, like being a Mod or a Punk. Now I’m old and less impressed by wordy fireworks I’d rather sink into the clean, unfussy prose of a Evelyn Waugh or Raymond Chandler. But I still love discovering new writers as much as new bands, like Jennifer Egan whose novel A Visit From The Goon Squad thrilled me as much last year as hearing Frank Ocean’s album.
Not surprisingly I have the same love of books as fetishistic objects that I have for records. It’s mostly paperbacks that I get all drooly over, from a design point of view I think they’re just perfect little things and prefer their more accessible, egalitarian nature and lack of preciousness. While a hardback is like a heavyweight concept album with a gatefold sleeve, a paperback is still like a pop single to me (though not as cheap anymore), a potential revolution of the mind in a portable package and I’m rarely more content than when I’m sitting on the bus lost in a great paperback. Then I look around me and see everyone staring at their iPhones and I die a little inside.
Download: Read It In Books – Echo & The Bunnymen (mp3)
May 1st, 2013
This cover appears to be from an alternate universe where Graham Greene is Mickey Spillane.
Though I guess technically the blurb at the top is accurate: Pinkie Brown is a psychotic killer and Brighton is a summer resort.
Download: Brighton Rock – Queen (mp3)